This article was originally published on The Plaid Zebra
Procrastination often takes the reins on our everyday lives, and we’re left putting off the goals and/or plans we need to reach a sense of fulfilment. Regrettably, when submitting to distractions, all we’re doing is weakening the competition for the other, more strong-willed and motivated to get farther ahead than us. This minority is feeding on the procrastination that consumes others, overshadowing the competition with one valuable weapon: willpower. Lucky for us, like any other skill, willpower can be learned, strengthened and conserved.
The 30 day game
There is no short-cut—the sure path to willpower is through the practice of any activity which exercises self-control. Google engineer, Matt Cutts, talked about strengthening willpower as an everyday habit. There doesn’t need to be that much thought put into it, if we think of it like a game. “If you want something badly enough, you could do anything in 30 days.” He began these 30-day challenges, in which he’d try something new for 30 days straight. It was a long enough time to feel he accomplished something, but it was short-enough to seem manageable. He started out with cutting sugar from his diet, then moved up to writing a novel in a single calendar month.
The effect that a series of successes has on the psyche is much stronger than setting a single long term goal, one which will probably go unfulfilled. Matt Cutts found himself feeling like he could do anything, backed up by his track record. He went from being the guy who biked to work, to the guy who climbed Kilimanjaro.
Serbian tennis star, Novak Djokovic, explained in his book “Serve to Win,” how chocolate plays a key role in his stardom, helping him achieve #1 Champion ranking.
A practice he claims does magic with him, is putting a single block of chocolate onto his tongue, allowing it to melt just enough so that he wants to swallow. When he’s on the verge of breaking, he spits it out. Being that close to something that feels so good, then denying himself that very thing, not only helps his back-hand but it also gives him a stronger character.
Stick it out For 66 Days
Health psychology researcher, Phillippa Lally, conducted a study on how long it takes to form new habits. In this study she observed a total of 96 people who chose to stick to new habits, some as simple as running 15 minutes before dinner every night.
She studied the results and came to the conclusion that on average, it took 66 days for a new behaviour taken up to become automatic. Interestingly, as reported by Lally, missing one opportunity to practice the new behaviour did not affect the results of the study. In other words, messing up every now and then doesn’t mean that you have failed and have to start from scratch.
Wanting to achieve a new milestone in our lifestyle takes a series of steps, but it always starts with the same one—and that’s “to start.” As Shawn Achor, Positive-Psychologist, stated: “If you want to change a habit in the long-term, in the beginning, you have to rely on willpower. But willpower is a finite resource and can’t be relied on.” That’s why he proposed starting off with the initial step, to set off the reaction.
Achor applied the “20-second rule” in order to achieve success. He optimized his surroundings so that he brought himself 20 seconds closer to practicing new habits, and 20 seconds further from practicing the old, bad ones. If he wanted to start running, he would sleep in his gym clothes, eliminating the need to spend extra time in the morning getting dressed. Alternatively, he would take the batteries out of his T.V. remote control so that he would read a book instead of watching television after work.
In other words, if you would like to learn a new habit, try making it easier and more attainable for yourself. If you want to learn a new instrument, keep the instrument on a stand beside your favourite spot on the couch. If you’d like to kick an old one, make it harder to reach—even 20 seconds is enough.
Nobel Prize winner, Ivan Petrovich Pavlov, talked about Classical Conditioning, creating specific associations to actions and how it triggers certain processes in our brains. While his experiments were focused on canines, what’s to say we can’t apply the same principle on ourselves?
Do you want a cigarette? Snap your fingers annoyingly right beside your ear. Did you just run a few miles? Treat yourself to something.
Gretchen Rubin talks about treating yourself on her website, where she goes through the process of implementing change in our lifestyles. It’s important to make our bodies aware of the fact that we’re gaining in the short-term, as opposed to just hoping for the long-term results. “When we give ourselves treats, we amplify our ability to use self-command and ask more of ourselves.”